Pilgrim's Routes and the
Order of Malta
by Prof. dr. Paolo
Caucci von Saucken, Perugia University.
(Published in Rivista Internazionale - December 1996)
Born in Palestine to assist and defend pilgrims, the Order of St. John of
Jerusalem's vocation rapidly expanded to cover not only those coming to the Holy
Land but all those making a Pilgrimage to one of the major sanctuaries of
Both J. Riley Smith and A. Luttrell have pointed out how in 1113, the year in
which Paschal II formally recognised it, the Order was already running hospices
in Asti, near the Alpine passes, and in the Ports of Pisa, Bari, Otranto,
Taranto and Messina. Just as the seats of the four Italian Priories were
situated in the crucial points of contact between Italy and the Holy Land:
Venice, Pisa, Barletta and Messina.
It is therefore evident that the expansion of the Order of St. John in the west,
in what from the perspective of Jerusalem and Rhodes was called ultramare,
favoured the communication routes, ports, passes and road junctions. This was
not only to ease the passage of those directed to the places where the Order's
activity was concentrated, but also to implement its natural vocation for
assistance to Pilgrims, addressed to the great Masses of people in continuous
movement towards the holy places Christendom.
To see the relationship between the Order of Malta and the pilgrim's routes and
to assess the meaning and value of the great pilgrimage season expected for the
end of this millennium, we must first of all establish what exactly the medieval
pilgrim's route was, how it was organised, what its characteristics were and,
above all, how we can reconstruct it for our times.
Besides pointing out historical and archaeological elements of the pilgrims'
routes, we will also indicate useful factors for the Roman jubilee of 2000.
There are different criteria for defining a pilgrims' route. First of all, this
route must end in an important sacred place. The first consideration is that the
itinerary must be functional for achieving the goal that constitutes its
constant point of reference, and which guides and gives meaning to everything
that happens along it.
The route leading to the shrine or the sacred place often takes their name: so
we have the vie lauretane, via micaeliche and vie romee. The most famous example
of this is the Camino de Santiago, which despite being also a trade and military
route, takes its name from its more specific function, that of conducting
pilgrims to the tomb of the Apostle James found in Galitiae in the furthest part
of the medieval known world, in occasum mundi, or in finibus terrae, as we read
in medieval texts.
An iter peregrinorum then needs, besides a well-defined goal, also an efficient
Pilgrims would never have been able to reach their destination, sometimes very
far way, on their own. They needed a support system, founded on caritas and on
servitium Christians, enabling them to accomplish an often dangerous and
Thus, along these pilgrim's routes, there was a well-co-ordinated network of
hospitia, xenodochia, hospitals and hospices which accepted, cared for and
guided travellers. Travellers who, pauper et peregrinos by choice, but also
often by necessity, could never by themselves have reached the sanctuaries,
often thousands of miles away.
These places of assistance were to be found all along the main medieval roads
and are the surest factor for determining that a road has been used as a
pilgrims' route. They were generally run by the great hospital orders, such as
that of St. John, sometimes named only Hospital from its main function. Other
orders were also present, such as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, or that of
the Templars, St. Lazarus, or orders with a more local activity linked to other
structures in the territory, such as the Order of St. Anthony of Vienna along
the western Alpine passes, or the Order of San Jacopo di Altopascio, mainly
operating in Tuscany along the via francigena, but also later expanding with
homes and hospices in Spain, France and even in England.
Burgos. Spain. A Hospital for the Pilgrims on the "Camino de Santiago".
It is significant that when the Order of San Jacopo di Altopascio had to give
itself a Rule (1239), Pope Gregory IX granted it that of the Order of St. John
as a base, considered the very best for the reception, assistance and care of
The hospitales were either run by corporations, municipalities, private people,
confraternities, or congregations such as that of the reformed canons; or they
were part of the big monasteries or abbeys which, besides their own guest
houses, opened some on the nearest roads. This was the case of the abbey of San
Salvatore, which from Amiata administrated one on the via francigena near
Radicofani, or the great abbey of Roncisvalle, which managed those on the two
sides of the Pyrenees.
Sometimes they were enormous, like those of San Marcos of León, de los Reyes
Católicos in Spain, of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, or of the same Order of
St. John in Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, albeit these latter were more strictly
health structures. Sometimes they just consisted of a few rooms furnished with
simple pallets, but all indicated the presence of a pilgrimage route and not
only on land, as in the case of Rhodes which was frequently used as a stopping
place for ships carrying pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Another element which can help us to define our theme is the presence of
specific cults connected to the civilisation of pilgrimages. Chapels, churches
and frescoes dedicated to St. James, St. Christopher, St. Martin, St. Nicholas
or other saints linked to the spirituality of pilgrimages, and iconographic
series representing miracles occurring to pilgrims are certainly indicative.
There are also churches, chapels and shrines connected to the cult of St. John
the Baptist, often recalling the presence in that place of the order and one of
its Hospitium. For example, the chapel of St. John of Magione, originally an
ancient hospital for pilgrims on which the imposing castle, current residence of
the Grand Master has been built. The same applies to place names, such as
Hospitalet, Ospitaletto, Spedalicchio, St. John or St. Sepulchre, and naturally
St. James or St. Pellegrino, indicate the sediment of a civilisation and a
presence connected to pilgrimages.
Along the roads to Rome we often encounter references and signs which told
pilgrims they were on the right track and which anticipated the devotions they
would find at the end, such as the numerous representations of vernicles. At
other times, the road is indicated by signs left by the pilgrims themselves,
such as graffiti, crosses, mazes, or more generally by the symbol of the shell
which became the signum peregrinationis par excellence. Certainly the octagonal
cross on the architrave of the hospices carried out the same function, just as
in the Holy Land the presence of St. John and Templar castles defended and
marked the road to Jerusalem. Often the pilgrims' route outside towns and
villages was marked by tabernacles, fountains or crosses set at the cross-roads;
signs which the pilgrims recognised and transmitted and which today constitute
valuable elements for reconstructing these itineraries.
However, what indicated an entire route with much greater precision was the
so-called pilgrims' travel literatura, that is the guides, diaries, Itinera,
Itineraries, Tagebucher and Viaggi which offer us a complete and often detailed
picture of these pilgrimages. We have them in all the western languages and on
all the main centres of devotion, although it is necessary to make a distinction
between travel literature for Compostela, generally concentrating more on the
description of the route to reach Santiago rather than the goal, and the much
more interesting Roman or Jerusalem ones with the description of the mirabilia
of Rome or the loca sancta of Palestine. However they all possess an enormous
quantity of information on the itineraries, on the devotions to be carried out
and on the hospital system. In the map it is possible to see the interlacing of
the Compostelan, Roman and Jerusalem routes which have crossed medieval
Christendom and created a cultural substratum; that complex Christian
civilisation, made up of faith, culture and values, which John Paul II, during
his pontificate and especially in the preparation for the Jubilee of 2000, often
calls the common foundations of Europe and of Christian peoples.
This is a cultural and spiritual heritage of exceptional significance, and its
study could be extremely useful for the role that the Order of St. John played
in the great medieval pilgrimages. A study on the Camino de Santiago has led to
the identification of dozens of commenda, houses, properties and hospitales
incorporated in the Compostelan itinerary.
The research being carried out on the via francigena is revealing much the same,
and increasingly stresses the role which the hospitaller and military orders
have had in the organisation of Roman and Jerusalem pilgrimages.
Bailiff Emilio Nasalli Rocca had already, in the Order's Anales, emphasised the
presence of various hospices for pilgrims along the Via Emilia, both founded by
the Order of St. John and acquired by the Templars after 1312. We could dwell on
this register for a long time. Hospitalia, originally Templar and then belonging
to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or founded directly by the Order of
Malta, are to be found along all the main roads of medieval times. A systematic
survey in the Malta Study Centre in Magione is showing that the Knights were in
much more evidence along the via francigena than was originally thought. The
same applies to the research of the Malta Study Centre in Taranto, demonstrating
that there was often a hospice for pilgrims in the south of Italy, in commenda
or churches dedicated to St. John, recording their passage to the Holy Land.
The Order of St. John has never lost its original hospitaller vocation and its
very close and characteristic rapport with the spirituality of the pilgrimages,
which it keeps alive with its direct participation in the major ones. Nor does
it neglect its direct relationship with and assistance to the numerous
travellers who have once again ventured out on the old pilgrimage routes, often
on foot. This is happening in Portugal for the pilgrimages to Fatima, in Spain
on the Camino de Santiago, in the province of Burgos, in Navarra and in Santiago
itself during the Compostelan Holy Years, not to mention Rome with the first-aid
stations the Order staffs in St. Peter's Square.
Reinforcing the Order's earliest vocation in view of those great pilgrimages
which will once again take off for the millennium does not only mean becoming
increasingly aware of the cornerstones of the Order's original spirituality.
It also means reinstating a cultural heritage of great value and actuality,
useful for mapping out, with its own physiognomy, one of the numerous
"itineraries of faith" which are being prepared for the Roman jubilee.
A great season is opening for the civilisation and spirituality of pilgrimages.
1999 will be the "Compostelan Holy Year"; it will also be the 900th anniversary
of the first crusade, so closely linked to the pilgrimages, and it will be the
eve of the great Roman jubilee of 2000.
Millions of people will be flocking to Rome, Santiago and Jerusalem.
The pilgrim's routes will once more become arteries pulsing with faith, common
cultural elements and solidarity. The great spiritual adventure of the passagium
to the next millennium will certainly be enacted on them. An appointment in
which the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, now called of Malta, will certainly be
actively present in all sectors.
Paolo Caucci von